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Like father like son

Rives, Walker and Allen Potts have experienced their fondest memories together while racing their 48-foot sloop

Rives Potts raced Carina, his 48-foot 1969 McCurdy & Rhodes, across the Atlantic last summer with a crew of four fathers and five of their sons, including his son Walker, who has raced with his dad since he was 11.

Rives and Walker Potts get reacquainted when they race their sloop Carina.

The fathers have taught their sons well. The beautiful black-hulled Carina finished second in class in the New York Yacht Club’s 2,975-mile Transatlantic Race and went on to win her class in the storied Fastnet Race, a rugged 609-mile sprint along England’s south coast to Fastnet Rock, off southeastern Ireland, and back.

Racing with fathers and sons, Carina also took class honors in the Block Island Race in 2011 and the 2010 Newport Bermuda Race, a favorite of the Potts clan. Walker, 26, and brother Allen, 27, sailed with their dad in their first offshore race — the Newport Bermuda — when they were 11 and 12, respectively.

Potts and sons have been regulars in the Newport Bermuda and other races ever since, except when the brothers were serving tours in Iraq in the Marines and while Walker was away attending college in Christchurch, New Zealand. “When you have a passion, you like to share it,” Potts says. “That’s one of the main reasons I bought Carina [16 years ago], to sail with my sons. You go through so many things together.”

The Pottses have toughed out tangled spinnakers, sick stomachs and green water on deck while also sharing beautiful nights on watch, the camaraderie that comes with sailing hard and racing well, and the ritual passing on of knowledge from father to son — about a lot of things, not just boats and racing. “Nowadays we are all so busy,” says Potts, vice president of Brewer Yacht Yards and general manager of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn. “I’m busy with my work. The boys are busy with school and with their work.”

Their shared commitment to racing helps them carve out time for each other. “The first two or three times we did the father-son thing, the boys were in their early teens and had very little sailing experience — just junior sailing, nothing on bigger boats,” Potts says. “There is so much that you learn [racing offshore].” Engine mechanics, refrigeration, rigging, navigation, weather, ocean currents, storm tactics, racing tactics, radio protocol, a million different mechanical parts and — an eminently practical skill — how to get along with your crewmates on long voyages in tight quarters.

Potts' 48-foot 1969 McCurdy & Rhodes has plenty of bluewater miles under her keel.

Much of this is learned by doing, but doing it with people who themselves know what they are doing. It’s an apprenticeship. On Carina, that apprenticeship is with a teacher who knows his stuff. Rives Potts is rear commodore of the New York Yacht Club and a veteran of five America’s Cups, including Dennis Conner’s successful 1980 defense on the 12 Meter Freedom. Potts crewed for Ted Turner on Tenacious, winner of the 1979 Fastnet, during which 15 sailors — none on Turner’s boat — died in a violent storm. He now manages one of the Northeast’s largest boatyards.

Last summer’s racing with Walker was particularly meaningful for Potts because his son had been away from home for most of the last eight years in the Marines and at school in New Zealand. “Being able to spend two-and-a-half weeks with him was just great,” Potts says. Being on the same watch, the two could sit together at night and “just talk about life, about the future, about family. We haven’t had a chance to do that in a while.”

It was a chance to get reacquainted.

Bonding on the boat

Potts prefers racing with friends and family, but last summer was the first time he was able to pull together a crew of his closest friends and their sons to sail in two of the races that many a super-serious racer aspires to — the Transatlantic and Fastnet. The crew comprised Potts and Walker, Bud Sutherland and son Rives (Potts’ nephew), Rich du Moulin and sons Ed and Mark, Dirk Johnson and son Dirk Jr. (the youngest at 16), and Cyane Crump, the only woman.

Du Moulin sails often with his sons in day races and has participated with them in the 635-mile Newport Bermuda, but the 18-day Transatlantic Race was different from anything they had done before. It was an “extended adventure,” a “unique” opportunity for him to spend real time at sea with Mark and Ed and with friends. “There’s no question that ocean racing brings you much closer together because you’re with each other 24 hours a day for weeks at a time,” du Moulin says.

Unlike day racing, where you “holler and shout” for a few hours, then retire to the bar for drinks, being at sea in a bluewater race is like “hiking in the mountains together,” he says. You and your team are alone together for the duration, far from the buzz of the workaday world.

Potts says that when his boys were teens and raced in the Newport Bermuda with other father-son crews on Carina, an interesting dynamic played out. The boys start the race reserved and wary of each other, not sure what to expect. As the wind picks up and darkness sets in, they stand their first night watch — nervous and often seasick. “It’s like the first day of boot camp,” Potts says. But then they change a few sails and stand more watches and start gaining confidence and competence. “By the third or fourth day, they are good friends. By the time they get to Bermuda they are lifelong friends.” He says there’s a lot of bonding on the boat, not just between fathers and sons but also among the sons — bonding that can cement lifelong friendships.

After the Fastnet, Rives Sutherland and a delivery crew refit Carina for a three-month, 16,000-mile delivery from England to Sydney, Australia. There, the fathers-sons crew and a few other hard-core sailors were on the starting line Dec. 26 in one of the classic offshore contests, the 628-nautical-mile Sydney Hobart Yacht Race from Australia to Tasmania.

Potts' sailboat rounds Fastnet Rock with a crew of fathers and sons in last year's Rolex Fastnet Race.

The Pottses (Rives, Walker and Allen), Sutherlands (Bud and Rives), du Moulins (Rich, Ed and Mark), navigator Dirk Johnson (Dirk Jr. hadn’t turned 18, the minimum age for the race), Chris Bouzaid, Jeremiah Garland and Kit Will sailed Carina to a sixth-place finish in its 19-boat division — not as good as they had hoped because a balky single-sideband radio delayed them for an hour and a half while they tried to check in with race control, as required, before crossing the notorious Bass Strait between Tasmania and Australia. “This has been such an adventure going around the world racing with each other and having time ashore,” du Moulin says. “It has been great.”

In mid-March, Carina was in the mid-Indian Ocean bound for Essex, Conn., on the back leg of a circumnavigation that will have logged 40,000 miles in less than a year. Potts says planning, organizing and executing that circumnavigation themselves — with some advice from the dads — has been a huge learning experience for the sons.

Carina’s delivery crew — Walker Potts, Rives Sutherland, Will and Garland — expected to have the boat back in New England in time to compete in the Newport Bermuda Race in June. It will be another chance for the boys and their fathers to go sailing together.

Potts says he’ll take every opportunity he can get to race with his sons. “As long as they want to do it and as long as I’m physically able, we’ll keep doing it,” he says. “This is one of the joys of owning a boat and one of the joys of being a father.”

See related article:

- Salt water in their veins

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.